Friday, May 11, 2018

String Asymmetry

I’ve had one blog about TV, and that was Star Trek. The Big Bang Theory is a show about some sci-fi nerds who also happen to know a lot about actual science. But really, it’s a show about relationships and they tied it all together brilliantly in the season 11 finale with Sheldon and Amy’s wedding.

It takes a few scenes for it to be laid out. It starts with, well, it starts with years of developing the characters, but if you don’t know them, I think it still works. It starts with Sheldon attempting to tie his bow tie perfectly. His fiancĂ©, Amy asks what he’s doing. She says maybe it’s not supposed to be perfect. Maybe it’s supposed to be a little uneven. No one can ever tell Sheldon he’s not doing something right, but he seems to relent a little this time.

Later he is getting dressed for the wedding with his best man and they have their moment, then Sheldon’s mother comes in and asks for privacy. They talk about his late father and the subject of the uneven tie comes up again. His mother waxes philosophic about how sometimes it’s the imperfect things that happen that cause a moment to be perfect. Sheldon notes that Amy said something similar, then gets that look on his face he sometimes does, the far off look towards a corner of the room that is focused somewhere further off into a distant galaxy. He says, “I gotta go.” His mother is left standing there alone, a perfect demonstration of something imperfect happening, and she says out loud to no one, “like that.”

Where he goes is to his bride’s dressing room. She is standing alone in her gown looking at a mirror. His first reaction is to be stunned by her beauty. This is unusual for Sheldon. Normally if he has something important on his mind, other people don’t matter. He does do what he normally does when he rambles and stumbles and goes on tangents as he explains why he’s there. Amy is one of the few people who can pull him back into focus and when she does he explains that the bow tie discussion has led him to a breakthrough in his ideas on String Theory. Instead of super-symmetry, it could be super-A-symmetry. The two begin writing out equations on the mirror, using lipstick. In an abnormal moment for Sheldon, he does not mention that he wants credit for this discovery. He says they will publish it together.

The show has science advisers who helped them come up with the super-asymmetry idea. They checked, and as mentioned in the show, no one has published something like this yet. The brilliance of the moment to me is that string theory is an attempt to find equations that unify all of our knowledge of the universe, to find symmetry in everything. Sheldon has believed he could do this since he was a little boy. He makes rules for everything, including relationships, and stresses the importance of sticking to them. The show has traced a long slow realization on his part that people don’t always function as a set of rules. To demonstrate that he is really finally getting this he is taking these lessons for life from his wife and his mother and applying them to his lifelong goal of understanding how the universe works through mathematical formulas. He is seeing the language of love in the language of the universe.

The equations of course are a metaphor. They are not suggesting that you can write a formula for the meaning of life. The science advisers make sure that the math that appears on the show is accurate in some sense, but accuracy is not the point. They know people will freeze the frames and scrutinize them. Sometimes they put math jokes on the white boards. I wouldn’t know. The metaphor is the search for meaning. Sheldon’s very Christian mother thinks she knows the answers and that it’s cute that her son is so smart. She also sees all the problems that it has caused for him. Sheldon sees nothing but problems coming out of his caricatured Texan family. The others on the show have their own approaches and philosophies that all get their time and place. What we saw at the wedding was that all of them are reaching for the same thing, and together, sometimes finding it.